California Coastal Ecology and Game

CopyRight @ 1998

     To understand much of what is written in this book, one must
understand how the California intertidal ecology effected diving
and promoted underwater hunting. It is not just that the game was
abundant and lightly touched by divers, it was that the game was
super abundant, because the primary predator of the shore, the
Sea Otter, was gone.
      The Sea Otter is a voracious eater that will consume almost
anything remotely tasty that it encounters in the shallow waters
of the coast. Their menu includes abalone, scallops, crab, lobster,
clams and most of the remotely edible mollusks. The otter is not a
good fisher. What this means is that in a natural reef area with an
otter population, such as the present California Central Coast,
urchins and abalone are almost non-existent. The nature of the kelp
forest is that the fish do well and the seaweeds do well since there
are no urchins or mullosks to graze them. Most Sea Stars seem to
be ignored by the otters, as are the hydrocorals, sponges, anemones,
feather worms and a few other things. There are no Sheepsheads to
speak of, because there are no urchins for them to eat. What urchins,
abalone or scallops there are, tend to be in very deep cracks and well
protected. Anywhere the otter goes, expect the common Mussles to
become rare and the Pisaster ocracous starfish to become reduced along
with it.

     So now back to diving. SCUBA has become a popular sport mostly
since the 1960's. In California that means that scuba divers were
visiting areas that were almost untouched. There had been a very few
intrepid sport divers before this time, but there were many people
that gathered abalone at low tide since before the turn of the
century. Places like Abalone Point and Abalone Cove (many of both
are in California) were named long before the divers got there.
     When divers got scuba and wetsuits, not always together, they
could find literally pristine untouched diving at Catalina, Palos
Verdes and the Northern Channel Islands. Game was super abundant.
Abalone grew on top of each other. Large scallops were in every crack,
just behind the urchins. Large Red Urchins were everywhere, their
bottom spines conveniently providing the primary nursery for many
intertidal species including abalone and lobsters. And then there were
all those Sheepshead everywhere. These large, strikingly colored, very
stupid fish, mostly lived off the plenitude of urchins. Besides these
and even stupider perhaps, were the Giant Black Seabass, commonly
weighing in at 500 pounds, very little of which was brain.
     The diver was presented with an incomparable lush beauty, the
hunter was presented with a smorgasbord and the commercial harvester
with a huge wild crop.
     So what happened then? They did it all in, basically. The next
section of the essay talks about what happened, maybe a bit about why
it happened and what it might mean.
     First thing to consider is that these are wild crops and the
harvesters are engaging in a neolithic hunting behavior. This is where
some of the problems start, because in most cases, wild crops are
totally mismanaged. Either there is no commercial hunt allowed, like
deer or they are commercially hunted way beyond sustainable levels
until the population crashes, like abalone, sardines, etc. Much of
what has happened to the wild crops of California was due to
mismanagement of the resource.
     Another problem is that one of the most recognizable instincts
that some humans have is that of the hunt. The last stage of human
development was largely based around the hunt and led to many of the
cooperative abilities that allowed for current human civil habits.
Scratch the skin of many people and just underneath is the neolithic
hunter, who unfortunately has no off switch. It is the story of the
hunt. Search for more and tell the story of the hunt. It's all very
old and very dangerous, because humans are so good at hunting that
with a bit of technology, they can wipe out just about any wild crop.
The trouble is that the neolithic hunter just does not naturally think
about conservation.
     So this is what happened as far as I have been able to understand
     Right away and very early on, the giant Black Seabass was sent to
near extinction. It must have been something to spear one of these
fish. Many were taken by fishermen, but it seems that most were
actually taken by free divers before there was much in the way of
scuba or wetsuits. I've heard incredible stories of what happened when
fishermen hooked ones. They didn't quite get a Nantucket Sleigh Ride,
but they did get dragged. I have never really heard how the early
spearfishermen went about it. Presumably, they would have needed
floats to hold the fish up once it was speared. I bet that most big
ones got away. Very early, hunting of the Black Seabass was completely
     The next major hit on the plenitude of the intertidal zone was
the abalone. It was mostly a domestic market and so was not huge. One
interesting note was that it could not be exported from California.
It was still a prize for the commercial harvesters though. There were
large fisheries many places including the Channel Islands. About the
early 70's, the commercial divers started to have a large impact on
the sub-tidal populations. Up until then, the harvesters along the
shore generally took more than the divers. Now the commercial and sport
divers were heavily visiting the reefs of San Diego, Dana Point, Palos
Verdes, Santa Barbara, Morro Bay and Monterey as well as Catalina,
Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands.
     The size limit for the commercial harvesters were set just a bit
bigger than the size limit for the sport divers. This meant that the
sport divers tended to find a fair number of abalone in the
commercially visited spots, but they were just legal. As the abalone
got harder to find, the divers moved out further. By the mid 70's the
commercial harvesters had started moving beyond the inner islands.
Diving at Santa Rosa Island in the early 70's, it was common to see 9
inch red abalone out in the open. These became uncommon by the later
70's. Still, until the early 80's, legal sized pink, green or red
abalone were fairly easy to find at all but perhaps Anacapa Island.
By the late 80's, the pink abalone that were common around the base of
the rocks at the mouth of the coves and the green abalone in the
shallows of Catalina, Palos Verdes and San Clemente Islands, were
pretty much gone. They were also gone from the shallows of San
Diego and the Malibu area. There were still a fair number of reds
left, because of their wider distribution. The Black Abalone were
still very common in the top of the lower intertidal zone, because
while quite tasty, they were smaller and tougher.
     All during this time, the commercial harvesters were seeking out
the deeper White Abalone. These are slower growing, but they get big
and from what I have heard, there were great numbers of them. The
commercial harvesters called them by their genus name, thorenson
abalone. It seems though, that after an area was harvested, the
population of White Abalone recovered very slowly. Most sport
divers, have never seen a White Abalone.
     By the end of the 80's, all that remained of the good commercial
abalone hunting was confined to San Miguel Island and the backside of
San Nicolas. They were the last because they were so remote and rough.
     Then came along the parasite that caused the "withering foot" or
"shrinking foot" disease in abalone. Last report, it seems to be a
parasite from Africa. Most of the Black Abalone simply died. The other
species got hit very hard as well. All the abalone in entire reef
systems would die suddenly.
     Now, there is no hunting for abalone below San Francisco. It is
thought that the White Abalone may be extinct. There never was any
policy about sustainable yield.

     In the mean time, the other wild crops were being impacted, just
not the same way. The wild crops of any interest to the diver that
were commonly harvested off the California Coast include scallops,
crab, lobster, ling cod, halibut, rock fish, kelp fish (including bass
and sheepshead) and, perhaps most importantly, urchins. The events and
story of each of these is different, but all have their part in this
essay. I'll start with the easy ones first

     The crabs, especially the large Sheeps Crab, are a tasty morsel
for divers to run into, but they were not really impacted by divers.
Commercial fishing has greatly reduced the populations though.
     Rock Scallops are not taken commercially. They grow fast and are
not even that heavily hunted by divers. Still, with all the divers out
there, in many places, large scallops are quite uncommon.
     Rock fish, Ling Cod and Halibut are very popular for spearfishing,
but actually, a very relatively few are taken on spear compared to the
commercial take. Ling Cod are now uncommon at the islands and halibut
slightly less so. The rock fish tend to be very small.
     Kelp fish like the various kelp bass are not commercially fished.
Many are taken with rods and really, there are few large ones left.
Divers did have a part in this. Getting a large bass is a challenge
and they are very tasty. There are much fewer legal sized bass than
there used to be.
    Sheepshead is a case where the diver did a great deal to reduce
the population. They were not commercially harvested and they rarely
take a hook, but are large and easy to hit with a spear. The only
thing that saved them is that they are not great eating. Many of the
larger ones succumbed to spears. Then, towards the end of the 80's, a
commercial fishery for Sheepshead started. It seems that there was a
market for live fish and especially the Sheepshead. Many boats put out
fish traps. Now there are few even medium sized Sheepsheads.
     Now lobsters have been a commercial crop for a long time. They
are pawns in a game played between commercial trappers, sport divers
and the Fish and Game. Really, the take by sport divers is incidental
to the take by the commercial fishers. Lobsters have a huge
distribution and thrive at pretty great depths. They are great
reproducers and eat most things they can get hold of. Their
population was able to stand up to harvesting quite well. Only at
Laguna and San Clemente Island was the population getting smaller in
size. At the end of the 90's though, the California Fish and Game said
that budget constraints made it impossible to enforce a restriction on
the number of traps that a commercial fisherman could set. They then
set a lot of them. Sometimes out in the kelp beds, you can see a float
from a lobster trap every 25 feet. The population is hurting and the
average size is much smaller. It is common for a lobster to be in a
trap many times before it is legal to keep. At this time the sport
diver is out competed. Though there are some nice lobsters still being
taken by sport divers, again and again, opening days pass with divers
only seeing a bunch of shorts. The only place at the islands that
commercial fishers cannot set their traps is the frontside of
Catalina. Not surprisingly, that area is now considered the best
hunting for lobster.
     Commercial lobster hunters should be required to wait until the
lobsters are at least 1/8 inch larger.

     Last we come to the sharp, but slow moving urchin. No one paid
them any attention. The Sheepshead ate them occasionally, but really,
without the otter, they were basically left alone. They thrived. The
big Red Urchins were everywhere there was protection and often they
were on the rocks in the open as well. No one paid much attention to
them other to occasionally break some open to feed fish with. Then a
commercial market opened that exported them to Japan. The Abalone
harvest was already falling off and there were many boats and
commercial divers ready to go after this cash crop. Quickly, the
population of Red Urchins dropped off precipitously.
     This had two immediately visible effects and another less obvious.
First the urchins were gone. They used to be everywhere, reminding you
to dive gracefully and never carelessly reach anywhere... or else.
Now, the formerly most common animal of the reef was gone. Shortly
after that, the Sheepsheads that ate them became less common. What is
more important though, is what is not seen. Under the short spines on
the bottom of the urchin is a very safe spot that is a primary
nursery for many intertidal organisms including lobster, abalone and
urchin. Removing this important nursery was just one more important
piece of the intertidal ecology that was gone. It hurt the entire reef
     The large, many armed purple Picnopodia starfish, is another
critter that makes its living eating small urchins, abalone and other
mollusks that taste good to otters and humans. They have become
somewhat uncommon as well.

     While all this was happening, the reefs were increasingly being
effected by the nearby urban centers. The magnificent kelp beds of
Palos Verdes vanished.

                              So Now What
     For a diver, game was super abundant, now it is gone. The biggest
impact on the reef, by far, was the Russian fur hunters of the
previous century that removed the Sea Otter, the primary carnivore of
the reef ecology. That was what led to the super abundance of various
game species. Then came changes, primarily starting in the 50's, that
commercial harvesters started to impact the reefs. They had the
greatest effect, but in other ways divers had made their impact as well.
     Harvesting, pollution, disease and other factors have left the
reefs of California relatively barren of much of the animal life that
was once abundant. As far as the harvester is concerned, Sea Otters
seem to have a identical effect, except for the pollution part.
     Any consideration of future management of these resources, must be
considered in the context of the Sea Otter. Is it going to be allowed
to extend its range through California and to the Channel Islands?
Aside from that, a basic problem of resource management must be
solved. Are past, failed, policies of wild crop management, based on
neolithic hunting habits and commercial expediency, going to be
continued with their almost inevitable result of collapse of the crop
population or will sustained yield policies be established?

     It looks like some of the heavily accessed and impacted areas are
finally being protected. Areas are being put off limits to all
harvesting. Santa Monica Bay is cleaning up. I saw kelp at the end of
Sunset Blvd. where it hadn't been for years. Black Seabass are
frequently seen by divers. These are all good. Perhaps the smallest
island, Santa Barbara, with its fantastic diving and great visibility,
should be put permanently off limits to hunting. Perhaps, divers
should buy tags for the abalone they take. Urchins should no longer be
broken for feeding fish. Sheepshead should be left alone. Also the
activity that has the greatest effect, commercial harvesting, should
be carefully regulated. From timber to deer, improperly regulated
commercial harvesting of wild crops, always leads to a collapse of the
crop. Historically, it is how things have gone.

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